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Originally published Monday, April 29, 2013 at 8:06 PM

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Michael Saunders goes deep in return to lineup

Outfielder Michael Saunders, out since April 9, returned to the lineup with a bang, homering to lead off the bottom of the first inning against Baltimore.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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After a 19-game absence caused by an injury to his right shoulder, Michael Saunders was activated on Monday and returned to the Mariners' lineup, paying immediate dividends with a leadoff home run against Baltimore in the first inning.

Saunders also drove in a run with a fielders choice grounder.

Carlos Peguero was optioned to Class AAA Tacoma to make room for Saunders.

The Mariners were 7-12 in Saunders' absence (including the game in which he was hurt crashing into the wall in the first inning on April 9). But Saunders said he was determined to let his rehab run its course, even when outfielder Franklin Gutierrez went on the disabled list.

"I feel I learned a lot last year from my groin injury, coming back a little too early," Saunders said. "We made sure we checked off a few things on the list to make sure I was ready. I'm back here because I'm ready to go."

Saunders played three games with Tacoma in a rehab assignment over the weekend in Las Vegas, including two appearances at DH and one in center field on Sunday. Asked what he needed to see, Saunders said, "Really, just that I'm competitive right now and I'm able to go out and help the club. That's the biggest thing. I can't rush back and be a burden just to get out there."

Saunders got in some hard swings, which were a good test for the shoulder. He didn't get much action in the outfield, but believes he will be able to throw well enough.

"It's not 100 percent," he said of his throwing, "but I was able to play out in center field the other day, and that was the biggest test. I'm able to do my job. Unfortunately, there were no balls in the gap. I played catch, and was able to get to 140 feet on consecutive days. That's more than enough in the outfield.

"My main goal is to be able to hit the cutoff man. Basically, if you hit your first cutoff man, you're going to get more outs normally than if you overthrow and try to get him out at the base. My goal is to get the ball in as soon as possible, make sure I hit my cut, and my job is finished with."

Mariners manager Eric Wedge said he likes Saunders at the top of the batting order, particularly with Gutierrez out, and hopes to be able to play him regularly.

"I told him, 'Let's take it day by day,' " Wedge said. "My plan is of course for him to play every day, but let's see. He didn't get a whole lot of action (Sunday) in the outfield. Let's see how much action he gets today, how he feels, and go from there."

Notes

Dustin Ackley, despite a nine-game hitting streak in which he's 13 for 32 (.406), didn't start against Baltimore lefty Zach Britton. Wedge wants to give Ackley periodic rest for his surgically repaired ankle, and prefers to do so against lefties.

"Not that I won't play him against lefties, but he was the odd man out today," Wedge said.

• Mariners pitchers have begun taking batting practice in anticipation of interleague play. The Mariners will play two games at Pittsburgh on their upcoming trip (May 7-8). This year, however, interleague play is more spread out because of the addition of the Astros to the American League, ensuring at least one interleague game every day of the season.

"There's a lot of starting and stopping with regards to getting them ready to play," Wedge said. "But that's just the way it is."

Hisashi Iwakuma is listed as the starter at Toronto on Sunday night, but Wedge said that might still be adjusted depending on the progress of the blister that has plagued the pitcher all season. The Mariners would like to give it extra time to heal.

"We're still working through that," Wedge said. "He at least will get a little more time; we're just not sure how much time. A lot of that will depend on where we see the finger the next couple of days, how he feels when he throws his bullpen."

Erasmo Ramirez, sidelined all season with arm problems, is throwing in Arizona, but Wedge didn't exactly exude optimism about his progress.

"How close he is, I'm not exactly sure," he said.

• Relief pitcher Josh Kinney, on the 60-day DL with a stress reaction on the third rib in his left side, is progressing and might be ready to begin a rehab assignment soon. He's not eligible to come off the DL until May 31, but pitchers are allowed 30 days in a rehab stint.

• Wedge said that John Stearns, the Mariners' minor-league catching coordinator, is likely to fill in for Jeff Datz on the upcoming trip. Datz was recently diagnosed with cancer and will be undergoing treatment. Stearns coached third in Monday's game.

"He'll step in at third base when Datzy is not able to be with us," Wedge said.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry

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